GUYTON, Ga. – In the three years Kalei Bulwinkle was under guardianship, the local judge improperly revoked her right to vote, erected hurdles on her ability to drive, barred her from having a debit card or writing checks, and banned her from spending over $500 without judicial consent.
As Kalei’s mom Victoria Vermillion challenged the rulings and hired a lawyer to extract her daughter from the system, the judge put the mother in contempt of court and threatened her with jail time.
The probate case of Kalei Hope Bulwinkle bears all the hallmarks of a guardianship calamity, with a family initiating the process with the best intentions only to confront a world of restricted rights and deep trauma. But the saga that unfolded in this small city 30 miles from Savannah includes another wrinkle: The probate judge deciding Bulwinkle’s fate had taken the bench without a law degree, and then proceeded to issue a series of rulings that would be invalidated only after the family fought them.
At least six states permit probate judges and other public officials who aren’t lawyers to issue adult guardianship orders. Georgia is among them, allowing such judges in any county of 90,000 or fewer people to take the bench without a law degree. Effingham County, home to Guyton and population 66,741, qualifies.
The county’s probate judge, Beth Rahn Mosley, is a former real estate agent and department store buyer who sought the post after serving as guardian for her brother-in-law. She campaigned door to door in 2008 to first win election. In an interview from her office at the county courthouse, Mosley said she thoroughly researches cases and uses common sense to reach just outcomes.
Though she discussed her path to the bench with Bloomberg Law, Mosley said she would not address Bulwinkle’s case or answer questions about it. “I refuse to talk anything about that,” she said.
The family, by contrast, said it was important to discuss its journey through the system.
“We want to educate people,” said Vermillion, a special education high school teacher. “We don’t want anyone else to go through what Kalei went through. … It’s a complete nightmare.”
Bulwinkle said she felt invisible in the process.
“I felt like the judge wasn’t treating me like a human being. She wouldn’t ever talk to me or acknowledge me,” Bulwinkle said. “I didn’t like that she was trying to take everything away from me.”
Judges play central roles in guardianship cases. And a Bloomberg Law six-month examination found that judicial oversight can exacerbate an already fraught system, with judges providing scant oversight – or, as in the Georgia case, issuing orders that improperly restrict the already limited rights of adults under their watch. The case also shows how difficult it is to escape from a guardianship.
In the US justice system, guardianships get short shrift, Bloomberg Law found. No government agency tallies how many guardians abuse those they are supposed to protect. No firm data exist on the precise number of guardianships, and experts can only estimate the billions at stake in such cases. It’s the same system that pop star Britney Spears fought to escape.
“The everyday person, when they think of a guardian, they think oh, there’s a court overseeing that person; isn’t that a check or balance? Oversight of guardianships by courts are very uneven,” said Morgan Whitlatch, a director with the Center for Public Representation public interest law firm. “We collect data about things we care about. And when someone has their rights removed, we should care about that.”
Bulwinkle, now 22, is an amiable woman with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning condition on the autism spectrum that can affect a person’s ability to communicate, particularly in social settings.
“When Kalei was in high school, Kalei was very generous to friends and they manipulated her,” Vermillion said. Once, she recalled, Bulwinkle gave another girl $5 to be her friend. “Kalei would just be generous, and as an adult I thought she’d be taken advantage of.”
Vermillion’s mother, a former probate court clerk, one day suggested she look into a limited guardianship for Bulwinkle. Vermillion thought it over and, after Bulwinkle turned 18 in 2018, petitioned to become her daughter’s guardian.
“I wanted my daughter to be able to contribute to society,” Vermillion said from the family’s home. “I wanted her to be a self-sustaining adult. I was trying to teach her how to balance my checkbook.”
On Oct. 25, 2018, Judge Mosley formally approved the petition. Under her probate order, portions of which were typical for cases in Georgia, she ruled that Bulwinkle could no longer make her own decisions to marry, enter into contracts, consent to medical treatment, or buy or sell property.
Vermillion soon realized she had made a mistake. Her daughter passed her driving test, graduated from high school, began classes at a local technical college, and showed confidence in making banking and medical decisions. In November 2019, Vermillion petitioned to restore her daughter’s rights, writing a letter to Mosley describing Bulwinkle’s growth as a young adult. Vermillion included an affidavit from her daughter’s doctor, who endorsed her petition.
“Kalei is my heart and soul, and I truly am so proud of her. Never in my life would I allow anyone or anything to hurt her, but I will always want what is best for her,” Vermillion wrote the judge. “I do feel that we acted prematurely by putting so many restraints on her.”
The legal restraints were just beginning.
Errors in Court
On Feb. 24, 2020, Mosley held a hearing on the petition that resolved nothing. The session had to be postponed because the judge hadn’t appointed Bulwinkle a lawyer or guardian ad litem. Nor had she provided the family with an evaluation report before the hearing, as required.
And the evaluator’s report she read in court contained errors, claiming Bulwinkle graduated with a “special education” diploma when she had actually received a standard diploma.
By March, Vermillion had hired a lawyer to help her navigate the case: Julie Kegley, senior staff attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office. The independent agency represented Bulwinkle at no cost.
Vermillion sent an email to the probate court saying so, adding that she intended to withdraw her initial petition to end the guardianship so her daughter could file her own, with Kegley’s assistance. “After speaking with Kalei’s attorney this afternoon, it was suggested for us to start fresh,” Vermillion wrote March 9, 2020.
A month later, Mosley shot down their plan. Bulwinkle couldn’t repetition to end the guardianship until Nov. 15, 2021 – two years after her mother’s initial petition.
In her April 2020 ruling, Mosley cited a state law that requires a two-year wait between petitions for termination of guardianship if a judge denied the previous petition.
The family was stunned. Vermillion’s petition hadn’t been denied “on the merits,” as the judge wrote; it had been postponed after errors in the process. Yet here was the judge saying no action could come for another 19 months.
And Mosley added another twist: She found Vermillion in contempt of court and ordered her to pay a $50 fine within 10 days. The reason: Mosley said her office told Vermillion she had to meet with a guardian ad litem the judge picked to assist in the case before the petition could be dismissed.
Once more, the family was taken aback. Vermillion said she never received an official notice saying a guardian ad litem had been appointed. Kegley urged Mosley to revoke the contempt order. “Because Mrs. Vermillion withdrew her Petition for Restoration, there was no longer a need for a Guardian Ad Litem,” Kegley wrote.
Mosley was unswayed.
On May 13, she affirmed her April order saying a new petition couldn’t come until November 2021. “Kalei Bulwinkle remains an incapacitated adult,” she wrote.
And, she affirmed her contempt order. “$50.00 is to be paid to this court by Friday May 22, 2020,” her order said. “$2.00/day will be charged until paid or she will face jail time.”
When Vermillion read those words, she was “petrified.”
“Can she really do this to me?” she asked herself. “I was thinking of going to jail. The consequences of being strip-searched and all that.”
The mother had long been her daughter’s rock. Now, the roles were reversed.
“I would come home sometime, and my mom would be in her room crying,” Bulwinkle said.
Bloomberg Law asked legal professionals to analyze topics including the role guardianship plays in states and what reforms would serve vulnerable populations.
In Oct. 2020, Vermillion sent an annual report to the court showing that Bulwinkle was writing her own checks, including some over $500 for her car insurance and college tuition.
A week later, on October 26, Mosley told Vermillion she would hold another hearing to see whether she should once again be held in contempt or even be removed as conservator. The reason, this time: Mosley was saying Bulwinkle couldn’t spend more than $500 at a time without court approval, nor could she write checks.
But those assertions, the family proved, were wrong. The judge’s initial order approving the guardianship never included wording about a $500 spending limit or the inability to write checks. When Vermillion had first become her daughter’s guardian, the judge gave her a handbook and video about the process. Neither, Vermillion said, cited such limits.
And then at a hearing that December 2020, the family learned that Bulwinkle’s right to vote had been revoked in October 2018, at the dawn of the guardianship. Mosley hadn’t held a hearing on the issue or listed the rejected voting rights in her initial guardianship order. In this 2020 hearing, for the first time, Mosley handed them a paper showing Bulwinkle could not legally vote.
Mosley declined to discuss Bulwinkle’s case but in an interview said the lack of a law degree doesn’t inhibit her ability to rule. Supporters of systems like Georgia’s say judges in small communities can provide sound legal rulings benefiting the public, whether they have law degrees or not.
“We have probate counsel and we have a Listserv. We still look up the law,” Mosley said, pointing to law books on her shelf. “If I don’t know the answer, I’m going to call an attorney not involved in the case. I’m not going to wing it.”
On Dec. 30, 2020, Mosley issued another contempt order against Vermillion and fined her $250. “No reason for the contempt finding was listed,” Vermillion said in a court affidavit, citing the judge’s order.
The judge also ruled that Bulwinkle would need a neurologist’s permission slip to continue driving – even though she’d passed her driving test and had no accidents or tickets, the family said.
And then on Jan. 8, 2021, Mosley emailed Vermillion that she was to close her joint checking account with her daughter and open a new account “that reads exactly Victoria Vermillion Guardian/Conservator for Kalei Bulwinkle. Kalei cannot write checks or pay her bills or have a debit card.
“If this is not done by Wednesday, January 13, 2021 by 5:00 p.m., then she will be forever removed from any part of this Guardianship/Conservatorship,” she wrote, referring to Vermillion.
The restrictions and directives were taking a toll.
“I did not know that every little dime, every little penny, every little decision would be nitpicked,” Vermillion said. “I took the brunt of the stress. There were days I had to get medicated by my doctor.”
Her husband, Rick Vermillion, Kalei’s stepfather since she was 10, said that with each new order, the family dug in even more to extricate itself from the guardianship. “I was ready to spend my life savings to get this overturned,” he said.
On the first day of March 2021, Kegley appealed to the Effingham County Superior Court to overturn Mosley’s orders.
Then the family waited.
Judicial Slam Dunk
On April 28, 2021, Superior Court Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. issued a 10-page ruling that struck down each of Mosley’s crucial orders.
“The Effingham County Probate Court’s improper additions of greater restrictions to Kalei Bulwinkle’s rights are reversed,” wrote the judge, who did not reply to interview requests.
Bulwinkle no longer had to wait until November 2021 to refile a petition to end the guardianship. Bennett reversed Mosley’s restrictions on her ability to drive and ordered that Bulwinkle could regain her right to vote and handle her own money.
The judge also cleared Vermillion of any wrongdoing. “There is no evidence or finding that there has been a breach of the fiduciary relationship between the guardian and Kalei and as such, these restrictions have no legal basis,” he wrote.
It was a slam dunk victory. When the family read the order, they couldn’t believe that, two-and-a-half years after the guardianship began, a judicial ruling had gone their way. “I just kept thinking of all the craziness we went through,” Vermillion said.
Three months later, Mosley vacated her $50 contempt fine against Vermillion and wrote her a refund from the Probate Court account. She also vacated the second contempt fine and admitted her ruling limiting Bulwinkle’s spending ability hadn’t been included in her initial guardianship order.
Mosley terminated the guardianship on July 22, 2021. Bulwinkle’s rights were restored.
Guardianship reformers question how nonlawyers could rule in such important cases. “I don’t think it should ever happen,” said Rick Black, executive director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, a nonprofit pushing for more transparency in guardianship cases.
Whitlatch said there should be concern when a nonlawyer takes away someone’s rights. She called it “evidence of lack of due process.”
Georgia isn’t alone. In North Carolina, elected clerks decide guardianship cases. In Texas, county court judges handling probate matters don’t have to be lawyers. Nebraska, Alabama, and South Carolina allow nonlawyers to oversee probate cases.
Mosley said her path to the bench began with her own experience as guardian for a brother-in-law with Huntington’s disease, which afflicts nerve cells in the brain. “Nobody wanted to be guardian,” she said, so she took the role. One day her husband turned to her and, referring to the probate judgeship, said, “You could do this job.”
Mosley decided to run after the judge announced her retirement, then reached out to political contacts. “I walked every subdivision in this county,” she said. As judge, she has pushed to make probate records more accessible to the public.
Critics say guardianship cases are too restrictive. Asked about that criticism, Mosley said: “It depends on the case, it depends on the person, it depends on the guardian.”
After she declined to discuss Bulwinkle’s case when Bloomberg Law knocked on her office door in early November, a reporter phoned two weeks later to again seek her perspective. Mosley’s office transferred the call to another court official. “She’s not going to be able to talk to you,” he said.
Kegley, Bulwinkle’s lawyer, said this was the first case she’d handled in which a higher court overturned a probate judge’s ruling. More common, she said, is for a probate judge who earlier approved of a guardianship to later terminate that order after being convinced, with new evidence, that the protected person was ready to strike out on their own.
Charting Her Course
In Guyton, Vermillion still carries regret for petitioning the court for the guardianship. She did it to help her daughter, never knowing the process would be so suffocating.
In October, during an initial interview with Bloomberg Law, Vermillion turned to her daughter.
“Kalei, I’m so sorry I did this to you,” she said. “I felt like I ruined my child’s life.”
She said the process to begin a guardianship was so easy, almost anyone could be put under one. “I feel I could almost go there and put you under guardianship,” she told the journalist.
Since Bulwinkle has been freed, Vermillion has seen her flourish.
“I’m doing a lot more stuff by myself,” Bulwinkle said from the family’s home. “Work interviews by myself without any help. Setting up doctor’s appointments. Calling in medicines.”
Last summer, she graduated from Ogeechee Technical College with an associate’s degree in early childhood care and education. She got hired as a day care teacher for 2-year-olds, driving herself to and from work each day.
And in November, for the first time, Kalei Bulwinkle voted.
Click here for Part 1 of Bloomberg Law’s investigation into adult guardianships.
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